Summer’s coneflowers

Purple coneflowers. ©Erin Gerecke (own photo)

Many years ago, when I was pondering what kinds of flowering plants to put in my first yard, my mother suggested coneflowers, one of her favorites. I was less impressed with them at the time. I thought coneflowers looked spindly and awkward, a gangly, dry sort of plant that didn’t seem the right fit for a flowerbed that I envisioned would be a little more…restrained. I just couldn’t quite see their appeal.

I was wrong. Coneflowers are the best. I’ve even chosen a coneflower as a theme photo for my blog page. Here’s the story of why I changed my mind.

Purple coneflower at its most cone-shaped. ©Erin Gerecke (own photo)

“Purple coneflower” is one of the common names for a perennial flowering plant native to the eastern United States. It’s formal scientific name is Echinacea purpurea. From perusing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) PLANT database, the word nerd in me was pleased to discover that the name Echinacea includes the Greek root “echinos” (hedgehog) that lends itself to many spiny things (such as echinoderms and echidnas). The spiky cone-shaped bloom of the coneflower gives it a distinctive look among other asters, the group of plants that includes daisies. Coneflowers are summer bloomers that tolerate hot, drier days and attract a wide range of pollinators, including butterflies and bees; in the fall, its seeds are popular with some birds.

From a gardening perspective, coneflowers check off many boxes: they are perennials, so they spread on their own and come back every year, they provide pretty color in a bright, sunny summer garden, and they don’t need much help from humans to survive the annual seasonal changes common to this part of the world. But that wasn’t enough to turn me into a coneflower fan. So what did it?

A summer visitor to my coneflowers. ©Erin Gerecke (own photo)

Purple coneflowers are one of many native plant species that have been naturally growing in my area for a long time. They don’t need my help in my yard because they are well adapted to conditions there. Lots of sun, occasional water, being left alone—this is all my coneflowers really need to survive. Best of all, they provide a food resource to local pollinators who themselves are adapted to coneflowers in this habitat. From bees to butterflies, the nectar resources of coneflowers are popular among many insects, which in turn are part of a larger food web that includes birds of all shapes and sizes. I like having birds and bats and other creatures hanging around, and pollinators, too. Having coneflowers in my yard (among other native plants) helps create a healthy place for the non-human species in my neighborhood to live. And so this is the main reason I love my coneflowers: I like knowing that their festive summer blooms will lift my spirits and sustainably support local biodiversity. (Humans have also benefited from the bounty of purple coneflowers: the plant has long been used as a traditional herbal remedy to help provide symptomatic relief from pain, wounds, inflammation, and to even perhaps boost the immune system to fight infection, though more research is needed.)

Last summer, I wrote a bit on my blog about insect biodiversity (here). Scientists continue to monitor insect population levels to determine the health of habitats around the world; because of their role as pollinators and as food for birds and other animals up the food chain, insects have an important role in maintaining ecological stability. Some scientists are concerned that habitat loss—including the plant species that insects feed and breed on—is part of the problem. And so even a small oasis of native plants can provide necessary resources to make a difference for areas where wildlife could use a hand. (For example, see this recent article about a rare butterfly finding refuge at a military training site in Pennsylvania.)

In Indiana, where I live, the Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS) is a statewide non-profit organization (among others) that works with scientists, gardeners, and various other official resources to spread awareness and enthusiasm for native plant species of all types in my region. Their list of plant choices for my yard that happily also call Indiana home is extensive. The list of what not to plant (invasive species that can disrupt local biodiversity by spreading out of control and out of balance) is also lengthy. INPS (and organizations like it) has many resources and internet links for people to learn about native plants and to take action to create sustainable, ecologically balanced ecosystems in their communities for years to come. And the neat thing is, most geographic areas have many resources available online or in person to help gardeners, landscapers, and others create suitable habitats for the traditional climate conditions of that location. All we have to do is care a little, and to take the time to educate ourselves about what others who came before have learned and are happy to pass along.

My coneflowers had a little rain yesterday and are looking good. ©Erin Gerecke (own photo)

Coneflowers are my annual reminder that I can take actions (big or small) to help make my own yard a positive place for plants and animals (and even the microbes) with a little research and advocacy for sustainable choices. My yard is full of trees and plants that brighten my day and lower my blood pressure in every season. There’s certainly more I could do to create a more extensive wildlife-friendly habitat on my property. I know I have work to do. But at least I’m a convert to coneflowers. I changed my mind. It turns out they’re pretty wild…and that’s a good thing. Thanks, Mom!

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